By Cleon Skousen
WHO WAS THOMAS JEFFERSON? He has been described by some as a Christian patriot, a man who held to a deep belief in Judeo-Christian values; others have described him as a deist, one who held strong anti-Christian sentiment; he has also been depicted as a rationalist, a child of the Enlightenment and a great political thinker.
Having served as President of the United States, first Secretary of State, Minister to France, Governor of Virginia, and Congressman, Thomas Jefferson once said that he wished to be remembered for only three things: drafting the Declaration of Independence, writing and supporting the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786), and founding the University of Virginia. Jefferson might have included a number of other accomplishments in the list – architect, farmer, collector of books, patron of the arts, violinist, skilled horseman, scientist. However, the three acts for which he wished to be remembered have this in common: they all testify to Jefferson’s lifelong passion to liberate the human mind from tyranny, whether imposed by the state, church or our own ignorance.
The following account, by Cleon Skousen, describes Jefferson’s role in the great years of America’s destiny – 1775 and 1776 – when young Thomas Jefferson went to Congress and wrote the draft for the Declaration of Independence.
– Jay Rogers
BY 1775 THE TIDE OF HISTORY WAS running fast. American blood had been shed by British Redcoats at Lexington and Concord on April 19. Then came the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, where over four hundred and fifty Americans were shot or bayoneted.
No doubt Thomas Jefferson was among those who wondered if King George was suffering from another of the fits of insanity which plagued him from time to time. Nothing seemed to appease the king, neither a proffered payment for the Boston tea nor pleas of loyal submission. He seemed determined to treat Americans as some of his most ferocious enemies.
All civil government was suspended in Massachusetts, and Boston was occupied first by General Gage and later by General Howe as commander-in-chief of all British troops in America. Like other Americans, Jefferson wondered where it would all end.
Jefferson was sent to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, arriving June 20, 1775. He was one of the youngest members present; only John Jay of New York was slightly younger. In the fall, Jefferson had to leave the Congress because of the death of his eighteen-month-old daughter. His wife and his mother were also very ill.
1776 – The Fateful Year
There were dark forebodings as the tide of history moved in upon the American colonies in January of 1776. Word came that the American expedition to capture Quebec had failed. General Montgomery was killed and Benedict Arnold, who had been a hero in this campaign, was wounded. It was only a matter of months before the Americans were driven out of Canada completely.
Jefferson was also extremely concerned about the bad news from Boston. Washington had lost over 4000 of his soldiers. Many of those remaining were sick. Others were disheartened. When their enlistments were up, a mere handful reenlisted. And since the British would not come out and fight, Washington reported that the restless Americans passed much of the time simply fighting among themselves.
To make matters worse, King George virtually disowned the American colonies. He announced that if the colonies were attacked by foreign foes, Britain would furnish no help. American ships were declared to be “free booty,” which meant it would be legal to capture any American vessel on the high seas and take it over, cargo and all. As for the crew, they would be impressed into the British navy.
It was in this dismal setting that Thomas Jefferson commenced what would turn out to be one of the most important years of his life. But he would have scarcely suspected it. His mother died on March 31, which was a great blow to Jefferson. He suffered excruciating migraine headaches for the next five weeks after his mother died.
His tensions were further aggravated when he read the six drafts which had been submitted for a Virginia constitution. All were defective, even though they had been drafted by such illustrious patriots as John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, Meriwether Smith, George Mason, Carter Braxton, Patrick Henry, and others of high repute. It was obvious that the best minds in the country were still struggling to find a proper formula for the efficient self-government of a free and independent state. Jefferson therefore decided to try his own hand at constitution writing.
In spite of his mourning and migraine headaches, Jefferson wrote three separate drafts during the next five weeks. However, he was robbed of the pleasure of delivering them personally to the legislature in Williamsburg because he was sent as a delegate to Congress. He arrived in Philadelphia on May 14, carrying the third draft in his pocket.
The longer Jefferson stayed in Philadelphia, the worse he felt. He had an intense anxiety to be in Williamsburg. Finally, Jefferson write a letter requesting that he be given a leave of absence from Congress to he could lend a hand in writing the Virginia constitution. Fortunately, his request was denied. Had it been otherwise he would have missed the greatest honor of his life – the privilege of writing the Declaration of Independence. Frustrated and disappointed, Jefferson sent his third draft to the Virginia legislature. However, they used only an insignificant portion of it. His constitution would have overturned the whole aristocratic structure of the state. Virginia was not yet ready for such a revolutionary change.
The Declaration of Independence
On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced the fatal resolution in Congress calling for complete separation from Great Britain. Several states asked for a brief postponement of any final decision in order to get instructions from home. Meanwhile a special committee was appointed to write a formal declaration of independence. The committee consisted of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson immediately proposed that John Adams prepare the initial draft. John Adams described what happened as follows:
“Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said: I will not. You should do it.”
Jefferson: “Oh, no! Why will you not? You ought to do it.”
Adams: “I will not!”
Adams: “Reasons enough.”
Jefferson: “What can be your reasons?”
Adams: “Reason first – You are a Virginian, and a Virginia ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second – I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third – You can write ten times better than I can.”
Jefferson: “Well, if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.”
Jefferson’s Preparations & Background
It is doubtful that any of the Founders could have brought to this assignment a more profound and comprehensive training in history and political philosophy than Jefferson. Even by modern standards, the depth and breadth of his education are astonishing. Here is a summary of his background which we have already mentioned briefly:
He had begun the study of Latin, Greek, and French at the age of nine. At the age of sixteen he had entered the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg as an advanced student. At the age of nineteen he had graduated and immediately commenced five years of intensive study with George Wythe, the first professor of law in America. During this period he often studied twelve to fourteen hours per day. When he was examined for the bar he seemed to know more than the men who were giving him the examination.
By the time Jefferson had reached early adulthood, he had gained proficiency in five languages. He had studied the Greek and Roman classics. He had studied European and English history. He had carefully studied both the Old and New Testaments.
While studying the history of ancient Israel, Jefferson made a significant discovery. He saw that at one time the Israelites had practiced the earliest and most efficient form of representative government. As long as the Israelites followed their fixed pattern of constitutional principles, they flourished. When the drifted from it, disaster overtook them. Jefferson thereafter referred to this constitutional pattern as the “ancient principles.”
Jefferson was also surprised to find that the Anglo-Saxons somehow got hold of some of these “ancient principles” and followed a pattern almost identical to that of the Israelites, until around the eighth century A.D. It is interesting that when Jefferson was writing his drafts for the Virginia constitution he was already emphasizing the need to return to the “ancient principles.”
Writing the Declaration of Independence
For seventeen days Jefferson composed and revised his rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. The major portion of the Declaration is taken up with a long series of charges against King George III. However, these were nearly all copied from Jefferson’s drafts of the Virginia Constitution and his Summary View of the Rights of British America. To copy these charges into the Declaration would not have taken him more than a single day. What was he doing the other sixteen days?
It appears that he spent most of the remaining time trying to structure into the first two paragraphs at least eight of the “ancient principles” which he had come to admire. His views on each of these principles are rounded out in other writings, and from these various sources we are able to identify the following fundamental principles in the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence:
1. Sound government should be based on self-evident truths. These truths should be so obvious, so rational, and so morally sound that their authenticity is beyond reasonable dispute.
2. The equal station of mankind here on earth is a cosmic reality, and obvious and inherent aspect of the law of nature and of nature’s God.
3. This presupposes (as a self-evident truth) that the Creator made human beings equal in their rights, equal in his sight. (Of course, individual attributes and personal circumstances in life vary widely.)
4. These rights which have been bestowed by the Creator on each individual are unalienable; that is, they cannot be taken away or violated without the offender coming under the judgment and wrath of the Creator. A person may have other rights, such as those which have been created as a “vested” right by statute, but vested rights are not unalienable. They can be altered or eliminated at any time.
5. Among the most important of the unalienable rights are the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to pursue whatever course of life a person may desire in search of happiness, so long as it does not invade the inherent rights of others.
6. The most basic reason for a community or a nation to set up a system of government is to assure its inhabitants that the rights of the people shall be protected and preserved.
7. And because this is so, it follows that no office or agency of government has any right to exist except with the consent of the people or their representatives.
8. It also follows that if a government either by malfeasance or neglect, fails to protect those rights – or, even worse, if the government itself begins to violate those rights – then it is the right and duty of the people to regain control of their affairs and set up a form of government which will serve the people better.
The Declaration Is Adopted
On July 2, 1776, the Congress assembled as an informal “Committee of the Whole” to freely discuss Jefferson’s Manifesto of Freedom. A number of changes were suggested and debated. It was the evening of July 4 when the Congress as an official body finally approved Jefferson’s somewhat modified document. There were over sixty changes but not one of the “ancient principles” was deleted.
Neither Jefferson nor the Congress called this document the “Declaration of Independence.” It was the people who later gave the Declaration its immortal name.
After approval, the document was sent to a Mr. Dunlap for printing, and a copy was ordered engrossed (in large formal handwriting) for signing. The printer’s copy has been lost, but the engrossed copy is preserved for public display in the Archives Building in Washington, D.C. Although Jefferson thought he remembered the delegates signing the document on July 4, it does not appear that the signing began until August 2, when the engrossed copy was ready.
Meanwhile, the Declaration was published by the Pennsylvania Evening Post on July 6, and copies were sent to the Committees of Safety in the various states by John Hancock, President of the Congress.
The first public reading of the Declaration was by the Committee of Correspondence in Philadelphia on July 8, 1776. People cheered, the bells rang, and many celebrated all night.
It is interesting that Thomas Jefferson was not identified as the author of this document until many months later. Furthermore, the names of the delegates who signed it were also kept concealed. There was fear of retaliation by the British.
This brings to mind the final sentence of the Declaration wherein the delegates stated: “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
In a figurative sense the delegates who subscribed to this document signed their names in blood. Had the Americans lost the Revolutionary War and been captured, they undoubtedly would have been tried and summarily convicted of treason. The penalty for high treason was:
To be hanged by the head until unconscious.
Then cut down and revived.
Then disemboweled and beheaded.
Then cut in quarters.
Each quarter to be boiled in oil.
The remnants were scattered abroad so that the last resting place of the offender would remain forever unnamed, unhonored, and unknown.
The Source of the “Ancient Principles”
A short time after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were assigned to formulate an official seal for the new nation.
As mentioned earlier, Jefferson – and several of the other Founders, including the Reverend Thomas Hooker, who wrote the constitution for Connecticut in 1649 – had discovered that the most substantive principles of representative government were those practiced by ancient Israel under the leadership of Moses. Jefferson had also studied the institutes of government of the Anglo-Saxons and had found that they were almost identical to those of the Israelites.
After a brief discussion it was decided that both of these ancient peoples should be represented on the great seal of the United States.
Here is Franklin’s description of the way he thought ancient Israel should be portrayed:
“Moses standing on the shore, and extending his hand over the sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open chariot, a crown on his head and a sword in his hand. Rays from a pillar of fire in the clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by command of the Deity. Motto: Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
John Adams described what Jefferson proposed:
“Mr. Jefferson proposed: The children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night, and on the other side Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs, from whom we claim the honour of being descended and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.”
Professor Gilbert Chinard, one of the distinguished biographers of Jefferson, states:
“Jefferson’s great ambition at that time was to promote a renaissance of Anglo-Saxon primitive institutions on the new continent. Thus presented, the American Revolution was nothing but the reclamation of the Anglo-Saxon birthright of which the colonists had been deprived by ‘a long train of abuses.’ Nor does it appear that there was anything in this theory which surprised or shocked his contemporaries; Adams apparently did not disapprove of it, and it would be easy to bring in many similar expressions of the same idea in documents of the time.”
On August 13, 1776, Jefferson wrote to Edmund Pendleton to convince him that Virginia must abolish the remnants of feudalism and return to the “ancient principles.” He wrote:
“Are we not better for what we have hitherto abolished of the feudal system? Has not every restitution of the ancient Saxon laws had happy effects? Is it not better now that we return at once into that happy system of our ancestors, the wisest and most perfect ever yet devised by the wit of man, as it stood before the eighth century?”
Jefferson studied the language of the Anglo-Saxons so that he might read their laws in the original tongue. In a letter to his old tutor, George Wythe, dated November 1, 1778, Jefferson wrote that “the extracts from Anglo-Saxon law, the sources of the Common law, I wrote in the original for my own satisfaction; but I have added Latin or liberal English translations.”
Congress did not immediately adopt any official seal, and as time went by other committees were appointed. Eventually, Congress adopted a simpler seal. It consisted of an American eagle on one side and an unfinished pyramid of thirteen steps on the other (representing the thirteen original colonies).
The pyramid insignia was copied from the fifty-dollar bill of the Continental currency used during the Revolutionary War. At the bottom of the pyramid were enscribed the Roman numerals for 1776, and the popular all-seeing eye of the Creator was implanted over the pyramid, symbolizing the providential power which the Founders felt had continually interceded in behalf of the cause of freedom during the War for Independence.
There were also two classical Latin mottos enscribed on the seal. One was Annuit Coeptis – “He (God) hath favored our undertaking.” The other was Novus Ordo Seclorum – “the New Order of the Ages,” or “the Beginning of a New Era.”
The ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Great Seal of America are more than just words – they are powerful truths. The Founders recognized that these ideas would one day change the world. Today we see these truths taking hold in former communist bloc countries as nation after nation has thrown off the yoke of tyranny. The whole world is looking to America as the architect of government founded on these great ideas. Since we have this great opportunity for leadership, we ought to hope and pray for a renaissance of these ideas first and foremost among ourselves.